Ruminations after the first post on Warhol
The moment you start ascribing meaning to a can of soup, you miss the entire point of Andy Warhol’s art. suffixing Warhol’s work with the label of art has its issues. Art normally involves an element of sensual/sensory pleasure. A premise of expression or representation is inherent. But the soup can in question is just that- a soup can- not an act of subversion or deeply nuanced meaning. If he was subverting anything it was the time honoured tradition of high art. Warhol was not seeking an escape from the harshness of reality but accepting that as the arena of once being. He was not representing or conveying the inherent meaning of his subjects. He was only labelling them or putting them in a frame. He was foregrounding the obvious. To use his words, it was “about liking things.” You may or may not like him for that.
He was about ‘presenting’ things rather than ‘representing’ things. This allowed him to be free of requirements of unique creation. ‘Representation’ entails an exclusivity of output. It is the artist’s interpretation of some object, event or process. A representation of female form will find expression in cubist reconstruction of Dora Maar in Picasso’s work or Odalisques of Matisse or sturdy physicality of Hussain’s nudes. These are customized creations which abhor mass production. Even portraits like Mona Lisa are not free of enigmatic intimacy of exclusive creation. But in Warholian universe even serigraph prints using silk screen technique is valid art because he is not representing but presenting. His Marilyn Monroe series along with Cow wall paper, Liz, Elvis, Accidents, Chairman Mao and Michel Jackson series were mass production and high art at the same time. Marrying this breach was a monumental achievement and Warhol did it in style. Distinction between the traditional art and his art is illustrated by his failure in case of Mona Lisa where he tried his reproduction mania in serigraph prints of multiple Mona Lisas called ‘Thirty are Better Than One.’ It looked strained and populist in bad sense. It lacked the aesthetic sensations of his Marilyn or Elvis and a major part of that was the representative appeal that makes Mona Lisa an icon that it is. However, somehow his fetish for the obvious was not devoid of beauty.
Formal decor and chromatic panache of his output is timeless and is hip even today, almost half a century later. Following one of his idols Matisse, Warhol “redid the world’s palette in tart” a new colour scheme emerged after 1962, the year when he blasted into the artistic consciousness of the world. He imparted lesser explored hues like citron, burnt orange, apple green cobalt blue to the lexicon of cool. He managed to bring the kitsch and posh disarmingly close and his main achievement was that he made it all seem irritatingly valid. He achieved this by combining aesthetic sophistication with the reproducibility of the mass production. This success at combining classical core, if not the form of high art, with the vernacular psyche gave him a stature to use his intuitive éclat regarding formal beauty and very hip colour consciousness to define a new chic. As the trends go this Warhol impact has endured surprisingly long. If his blandness of devotion to the obvious made him so pervasive that his influence or presence is very difficult to deny. His rich sense of colour, which made him such a successful commercial artist in the first place, keeps him ubiquitous. Right from the bottle of Absolut Vodka to neon induced glitz of Time Square or Tokyo to illustrated children books he is everywhere. His motifs can be seen on cloths of top fashion houses, on shoes, watches, logos advertisements. No doubt his is a defining presence on the artistic landscape of the later part of the century gone by.
Robert Hughes of Time Magazine has called Warhol’s fame his most authoritative creation- “the meticulous construction of a persona vivid in its coy blandness, pervasive and teasing in its appeal to the media, and deathlessly inorganic.” This makeover of son of an immigrant Czech coal miner named Warhola in Pittsburgh, to Warhol was in line with his philosophy of ‘absoluteness of systematic banality’. In his decline- a phase after he was shot by one of his hanger ons in 1968, he was more famous for being Andy Warhol than his work. In this phase he was prolific and active but as one critic has put it ‘intensity leaked out of his works’. A trashy melodrama over took what was the genuine exhilaration of discovering something new. When surprise waned his work stopped giving the same degree of aesthetic sensation. Detachment which provided a new standing to his work started appearing forced. But even in his decline he was interesting and provocative. Chairman Mao series bears testimony to it.
He had uncanny knack of grasping the ‘ripeness of the moment’. His was a life of celebrity acutely tuned to the pulse of media space. This ability along with the ability to grasp an image and instilling it with ‘visual clout’ put him at the centre of the orgy of fame and kept him there for a long time. Originator of the phrase ’15 minutes of fame’ had a longer moment in the spotlight- a moment that still lingers.
Great article on Warhol by Brayan Appleyard in Economist-Intelligent Life at http://www.bryanappleyard.com/2011/10/on-andy-warhol/